Seeking a Fresh Start: Gay Teens and College

My daughter, Alyson, began checking out colleges in her junior year of high school. On one of our first visits, she and I were finishing up an interview with the dean of admissions when she asked if I could step outside so she could have a moment alone with him. Later that night, I asked her what she had said to him. “I asked him if the college was gay-friendly,” she said, “because I am.” That was when I first learned that my daughter, then 16, was a lesbian.

Navigating the tension-filled college-application process is difficult for most teens. But when sexual orientation and gender expression and identity are added issues to the college search, it becomes an even more daunting process. This week, anxious high-school seniors, including my daughter, are receiving their final college-admissions decisions. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth, these decisions can be critical. On top of the standard academic criteria, they’re seeking a place that provides a safe, accepting environment that allows them the chance to be themselves and find others like them—something many couldn’t find in high school.

Thanks to the Internet, a growing number of LGBT support groups and greater awareness fostered by celebrities who are out of the closet, conditions have improved for LGBT teens, as compared to the more negative environment of decades ago. There are now college guides aimed at gay teens and an increasing number of support groups for high-schoolers. But LGBT youth still face enormous challenges, living in a society “that rejects them far too much of the time,” says Charles Robbins, executive director and CEO of the Trevor Project, which operates a 24-hour crisis and suicide-prevention helpline for LGBT youth that receives 18,000 calls a year. This makes the inherently difficult teenage years even worse, he says. A survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), released in October 2008, found that 86 percent of LGBT students were verbally harassed, and 44 percent physically abused. For kids dealing with this kind of abuse in high school, a supportive college campus is more than just an academic matter.

My daughter hasn’t suffered outward persecution at her high school in the Midwest; her friends have been supportive of her sexual orientation, but she still feels like the odd woman out in a teen world dominated by heterosexual parties and proms. She believes that a love interest and relationship isn’t in her high-school future. “I feel weird at parties because everyone else is straight,” she says. At a recent LGBT teen leadership conference in Denver, she socialized with college kids and learned, for the first time, what it was like not to be an outsider. “Every single person around me was LGBT. It was incredibly refreshing and awakening. For once, I wasn’t a deviant from the norm.” So Alyson is making sure that her college years offer her that same comfortable feeling, vigorously researching schools to find that kind of environment.

Yoni Siden, 18, a college freshman, was also looking for a campus where he could feel comfortable. Siden came out three years ago to his parents and even in his liberal community of Ann Arbor, Mich., he has been called a “faggot” since sixth grade. During ninth and 10th grades, he was pelted with fruits and vegetables multiple times a week in the school’s lunchroom, and in his junior year he was run off the road by an SUV filled with boys from his high school. “It was clear to me that I was not welcome or accepted,” Siden says.

After spending his high-school years in fear, Siden made certain his college experience would be better. He methodically researched schools, interviewing the admissions counselor on the school’s LGBT-friendliness and openly discussing his sexual orientation in his application. He decided on Loyola University. The university’s location, in a large city, Chicago, helps him feel safe for the first time, and he can openly engage with a large community of gay peers. “I never have to wonder if the look that someone just gave me was going to result in a gay-bashing. It’s been wonderful in that way.”

Jacob Weldon, now 25 and living in New York, became estranged from his parents during his senior year in high school after he told his father, a police officer and former Marine, that he was gay. (He’s now reconciled with them.) Growing up in a conservative town in Texas, he became accustomed to having “fag” scrawled across his windshield. Now, at Columbia University, he says he’s blossomed. “I can hold my boyfriend’s hand if I want to” and not be afraid of being beaten up, he says.

Teens are coming out younger than ever before, and while that can mean more harassment of the kind that Weldon endured, it has also given rise to a host of social-support groups. Caitlin Ryan, director of the family-acceptance project at the Cesar E. Chavez Institute at San Francisco State University and an author of the first comprehensive study on LGBT adolescents and their families, says that while gays in the 1970s came out on average in their 20s, that age is now 13½. The number of high-school gay-straight alliance clubs has jumped from 1,000 in 2001 to 4,000 today, according to GLSEN. With more openness, and additional resources, it’s easier for gay teens to take sexual orientation into consideration when going through the college-selection process.

My daughter’s search began with college guides tailored to her interests. During this past year, it wasn’t unusual to see the The Gay and Lesbian Guide to College Life open on her bedroom floor. As out teens make a school’s gay-friendly atmosphere a priority in their college decisions, they now have several of these guidebooks available to help them find the right school.

The LGBT Students Guide to Colleges, Universities and Graduate Schools was the first, published in 1994, followed by The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students (2006). And mainstream publications, like The Princeton Review’s The Best 368 Colleges (2009) and The Fiske Guide to Colleges also include information tailored to assist college-bound LGBT youth. “As LGBT issues came to be more openly discussed, we devoted more attention to them,” says Ted Fiske, the author of the Fiske publication. He adds that more colleges are marketing to out teens.

The need and desire for this information is out there, says Candace Gingrich, youth and campus outreach senior manager for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group based in Washington. “It’s the kind of information you’re not going to learn from a campus visit.”

Colleges are also conducting more direct recruiting and outreach to gay students, says Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a nonprofit organization for LGBT student leaders. The group developed the Climate Index as a way to allow colleges to connect with openly gay students. Currently, 185 colleges participate, and an average of 35,000 students contact participating colleges requesting information. While LGBT teens want to find an accepting place where they can learn and be safe, “Colleges today want to be called ‘gay-friendly,’ ” Windmeyer says.

The guides were quite helpful to Alyson, who initially had nearly all-female schools on her list of potential colleges. I urged her not to nix well-regarded colleges merely because they were coed. The list had to be more “inclusive,” using a favorite term of Alyson’s. Acknowledging this, she added a few coed institutions to her list.

Even if Alyson is lucky enough to find an accepting atmosphere, it’s difficult for me, as her mother, knowing the prejudice, homophobia, and hostility she’ll inevitably face at some point during her college years. There will be times when people will, no doubt, gawk at her if she walks down the street holding hands with a girlfriend. This doesn’t bother Alyson, though. She’s completely open about her sexuality and has found allies and mentors as a leader in an activist teen LGBT group called Riot Youth, which, among other things, is pushing for changes in school curriculum to include LGBT authors and figures in history and full coverage of LGBT issues in health classes.

Yet, even with the support she’s been getting in high school, she’s truly excited about college. Regardless of where she attends, “absolutely, college will be better,” she says. “I think I’m going to end up being happy.” After all the research Alyson has invested in finding that special place, I’m comforted she will be.

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*Reprinted with the permission of NewsweekEducation.com.

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